In an interview last month with a reporter from ZDNet Asia, a website about technology offering such services as product reviews, news, and opinion, Eugene Kaspersky, the CEO of Kaspersky Lab, a top computer security company, told a reporter that he thought that the greatest problem facing not only the internet but computers in general was anonymity on the web. His frustration with anonymity on the Internet stems from what he sees as a basic design flaw in the Internet. His point is that the Internet was designed for a small, select, easily identifiable group i.e. the Department of Defense, and that when it was released to the general public its intended audience changed but it’s design did not. He does not propose that we limit the use of the Internet to a select few scientists once again, but that instead we now take the chance to redesign the Internet. His main ideas are a sort of Internet police force – an online Interpol. His second is this idea of driver’s licenses for the World Wide Web. Kapersky said that he felt that access to the Internet should be limited in the same that we limit and control access to airplanes, or driving – we should require something similar drivers licenses or passports to access the Internet. ISPs, he says, are not enough. He likens them to license plates; the plates are but one part of identification; to positively identify someone in the car they need to have their license. Besides the obvious practical problems with this proposal, there are a few philosophical problems I have with both his arguments and with his idea of ending anonymity for the Internet.
Simply because anonymity was not an original aspect of the design on the Internet does not mean that somehow it is bad for the Internet; this is simply a flawed argument. Why is anonymity a negative aspect of the Internet simply because it’s being used in a way it was not originally designed for? Take Ikea furniture, for example. There is quite the following for a site called Ikea Hacker, a blog that posts peoples’ various re-uses of their Ikea furniture, and instructions on how you can do the same. (This is, of course, not the strongest analogy in the world – I mostly just think that this is a great site, but you get my point – his point simply doesn’t follow from what he says about the original state of the Internet).
Of course his greater point is that anonymity and the popular voice somehow hurt the Internet. However, in my opinion, the benefits of anonymity far outweigh the negatives. Even if, in the United States, we don’t legally curb free speech, socially we certainly do, and some people even self-censor and would be far more hesitant to speak if anonymity were not an option. As we read last week in “The coming-out stories of anonymous bloggers:”
“There are things that you know, or that you feel sort of in your heart of hearts, that you might not want to put out there in a public way” with your name attached, she said. “If people always spoke without filters, we’d learn a lot more.”
Her point is not that it makes people happy to be able to anonymously post mean things about others online, or that it’s useful for criminals to be anonymous. It’s that it is socially and politically useful to have anonymity. We need the kind of fearless honesty that is possible in most cases only with anonymity. The amount of information, both facts and opinions, available to us would drop dramatically if people could no longer be guaranteed a safeguard from general public opinion.
The idea of having “driver’s lisences” while on the Internet is also a wholly invasive and paranoid notion. The implication behind this suggestion is that not only could you not have pseudonyms, so to speak, but also you would also have to plainly identify yourself while on the Internet, or be forbid from using it. The ease with which Kaspersky’s new Interpol could identify you presents not only a problem for anonymity but is also an invasion of privacy. While the argument can be made that increased surveillance helps catch criminals, I would also argue that it also catches innocent people and makes them feel like criminals for simply doing something controversial or perhaps personally embarrassing; there is legal law, and then there are social mores. Many argue that if you’re acting completely within the law you should have no problem letting the police check you out. But, while I think that some preemptive measures against crime are justified, I would argue that if I’m acting within my legal limits, as it should be assumed that I am, why should the police need to check me out, even at a cursory level.
Further, perhaps it isn’t even so bad that criminals have this anonymity. After all, it seems to me that Mr. Kaspersky might be out of a job without all of these anonymous criminals emailing viruses around.